How Sapa O’Chau empowers ethnic minorities in Vietnam

Today we’re interviewing Shu Tan, the Founder of Sapa O’chau, a social enterprise that empowers ethnic minorities in the North of Vietnam.

This interview is also personally important for me because I spent with Sapa O’chau my last New Year’s Eve. Not only it opened my eyes to many problems ethnic minorities face but simply was the best stay ever! And I’m not being paid to say this:).

Sapa Ochau Founder Shu Tan

Shu Tan is a Black Hmong girl from Lao Chai Village, Sapa, Vietnam. She had first hand experience as a street peddler of handicrafts when she was 13. Determined to improve the lives of her community, she helped to build the first ethnic minority owned homestay in Lao Chai village in 2009. She grew Sapa O’Chau from selling cafe tours in 2011 to the first ethnic minority owned international tour operator in Vietnam in 2013.

The main activity of Sapa O’Chau is providing customized and ready-made treks and tours.  Sapa O’Chau also runs a café and handicraft store. All the money earned is reinvested in the community.


Anula: What are the challenges that Sapa O’Chau is trying to address?

Shu: The goal of Sapa O’Chau is to empower ethnic minorities living in Sapa district to have an education and have sustainable careers. At the moment most of the income from tourism in Sapa goes to ethnic Vietnamese or foreigners.

Vietnamese and foreigners own most of the restaurants, tour operators, hotels and homestays in the region. Vietnamese tour operators usually choose Vietnamese homestays to bring their customers to. This means that the locals do not benefit much from the large amount of tourists that come to Sapa. Local women are therefore often selling handicrafts on the street so they can support their families. Vietnamese language is not the native language of the ethnic minorities. To gain access to employment, they have to learn Vietnamese and English. This also means that the ethnic minorities have to overcome the language barrier to succeed in school. Most children do not continue high school education as their families cannot afford it or they need manpower to tend to the farm, animals and children. Girls are especially discouraged from education as they are married off young around the age of 15.

Sapa O’Chau aims to change the current situation and create opportunities for the ethnic minorities.

Sapa Ochau rice fields
Anula: What is special about your approach to meeting challenges of ethnic minorities?

Shu: Sapa O’Chau empowers ethnic minorities in the region to help themselves. Its aim is to create structural improvement of the conditions of local people, providing parents with work and children with education. This is something that could not be done if Sapa O’Chau was just a charity.

After covering our costs all the money that is earned with our tours, treks, café and handicraft store is reinvested into the community. Because Sapa O’Chau is owned and run by ethnic minorities it is an organization that is culturally sensitive, working to improve living conditions for the Hmong, Dao and other minority peoples without losing their cultural identity.

Sapa Ochau hiking

Anula: What is the impact you have achieved so far?

Shu: Sapa O’Chau has proven its approach is successful. The money earned has been put to good use. Sapa O’Chau has trained 90 of its students to become tour guides and therefore having sustainable careers. 63 students continue education and vocational training programs. 23 students graduated from vocational training and college.

It has supported 13 homestays and even built one ethnic minority homestay in Lao Chai. It has employed 28 trekking guides, while 21 of the trekking guides working for Sapa O’Chau have gone on to work at other tour operators. Sapa O’Chau has 50 employees all ethnic minority except for 4 from Kinh majority. Sapa O’Chau is operating at maximum capacity with 35 high school students boarding at our boarding facility.

Sapa O’Chau is also honoured to be one of the finalists for World Tourism for Tomorrow award 2016 and longlisted for World Responsible Tourism award 2015. I’m also honoured to be named as one of Forbes Vietnam 2016 30 under 30 list.

Sapa Ochau batik workshop

Anula: What do you need to help you be more successful?

Shu: Sapa O’Chau plans to acquire a land and building of its own and employ 5 teachers. We plan to house 80 students from the village, 40 high school age students so that they can attend high school in Sapa town and 40 vocational students who have already completed their high school but do not have a skill.

Currently, Sapa O’Chau supports 35 high school students. We rent an old hotel for this purpose and it is subjected to many restrictions imposed by the owner. The building is very old and requires costly maintenance. This is a waste of investment as the building is not owned by us. Sapa O’Chau plans to acquire a land of about 3000 square meters in Ta Phin village, Sapa. It is estimated to be about USD32/m2 , which works out to USD96,000. The cost of two-storey buildings with total floor area of about 1,900m2 is estimated to be USD475,000.

The centre will consist of core buildings for classrooms, administration, dormitory, dining, kitchen, handicraft room, music room, computer room, and library. These will occupy a floor space of about 6,699m2 and land space of about 609m2. These facilities will support the existing 35 students as they move into the new centre. As Sapa O’Chau recruits new students and reaches 80 students, it would require additional dormitory and classroom blocks. These would require a floor space of 658m2 and land space of 329m2.

Sapa Ochau schoold children

Anula: What does that success look like? Share your dream with us.

Shu: The success of our vocational program would be measured by the percentage of our vocational students who are able to obtain employment within 6 months of graduation. The goal is to reach 80%
employment rate within the first 6 months of graduation.

The success of our high school program would be measured by the percentage of our high school students who are able to complete our program and continue to higher education. The goal is to reach 80% of students continuing higher education.

Sapa Ochau New Year

Anula: Which other person, company or organisation would you most like to recommend to be interviewed for this series?

Shu: SapaNapro is a Red Dao cooperative. It focuses on growing herbs sustainability as the demand for herbal bath grows. Currently there are more than fifty families involved in sustainable herb growing. The cooperative owns a herbal bath outlet in Ta Phin village.

To find out more about Sapa O’chau, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and YouTube.

This article is part of Interviews with Social Entrepreneurs. If you would like to be featured in this series, please get in touch.

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